You’ve probably heard people talk about sulfates, and seen “sulfate-free” called out on shampoo and cosmetic labels. Did you ever wonder... what IS sulfate? And why is having a product labeled sulfate-free or SLS free such a big deal? Today we’re breaking down everything you need to know about sulfates, including the ever infamous sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate (SLS).
With the help of Dr. Joe (Cincotta), an award-winning product developer and our in-house WOW wizard of formulation, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about sulfate, including: what are sulfates in shampoo, what does sulfate do to your hair, and so much more.
WHAT IS SULFATE?
What is sodium lauryl sulfate? “Sulfates, including sodium lauryl sulfate, are synthetic detergents, originally developed for the laundry industry.”
Yes. Really. The sulfates that are found in so many shampoos were actually developed to wash your clothes. If you check the ingredient list on almost any commercial detergent, the first ingredient will be sulfate - likely sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. So what’s the deal?
Back in the day, before chemists created sulfates, the earliest forms of soap were made of naturally derived lye and lard. These soaps had very high pH (alkalinity) and while they were good for household chores (dishes, bedclothes, washing garments), they were aggressively harsh.
Then, in the 1940’s, scientists synthesized the first cleansers based on a chemical called sodium lauryl sulfate. This “sulfate” led to the first man-made detergent, and it was quickly adopted and used in a wide variety of household cleaning products. From there the sulfate craze blew up! Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate were basically in everything - including shampoos and personal care products.
WHY WERE "SULFATE-BASED" CLEANSERS SO POPULAR?
Three very good reasons.1) They were cheap and easy to produce.2) They were less damaging to hair and skin than lye or lard-based soaps.3) They lathered like crazy, which gave people a sensation of “powerful, super cleansing” when the lather rinsed off.
A whole new generation of super-charged, sulfate-based shampoos took over the hair care industry.
But sulfates were not all good news… Great at cleaning (most!) fabrics and objects, sulfates are, unfortunately, a harsh way to clean your hair and body. Sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate don’t just lift away dirt and grime, they also strip away the delicate layers of natural moisturizers (created by your body’s own sebum) that protect, smooth and keep your hair and skin optimally healthy.
WHAT DO SULFATES DO TO YOUR HAIR?
Well, because sulfates are a harsh chemical compound they make your hair strands swell up, and cause the outer cuticle layer to open. Once this happens, natural moisturizers leach out. This is an issue for everyone, but can be especially problematic for people with dehydrated hair (like those with naturally curly texture, color-treated or chemically-processed hair.)
But that’s not all. Sulfates cause hair color to fade. When the cuticle layer is lifted due to swelling, color molecules leach out just like natural moisturizers. In fact, according to Dr. Joe, “Eighty percent of color fade happens because of wash-out from sulfate-based shampoos that contain ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate.”
The bottom line? If you value your hair’s health and hair color, make sure your shampoo does not contain sulfates, you want a formula that is SLS free.
So if sulfates are so bad… what’s the best shampoo for your hair?
“Definitely look for a shampoo that is sulfate-free (otherwise known as SLS-free). But beware,” Dr. Joe warns, “not all sulfate-free formulas are the same! Some shampoos are “sul-FAKE-free!”
So, what exactly does that mean? Some shampoos that are labeled “sulfate-free” contain ingredients like “sodium C14-16 olefin sulfate” or “sodium xylene sulfonate” that, while not chemically classified as “sulfates,” have properties that exactly mimic harsh, aggressive sulfate behavior.
ur go to? Color Wow Color Security Shampoo. With its proprietary sulfate-free base, this cleanser is ideal for all hair types, even the most fragile and chemically-damaged. Plus, due to the concentration of “safe surfactants,” it still gives a rich lather that most people know and love. A bigger bonus, Color Wow Color Security Shampoo rinses clean without leaving residues behind (Want to learn more about residues lurking in most shampoos? click here!).
LET'S WRAP IT UP: WHAT ARE SULFATES IN SHAMPOO? WHAT DO SULFATES DO TO YOUR HAIR?
Sulfates are harsh chemical surfactants that dry out hair and can strip away color.
The best piece of advice from Dr. Joe: “When it comes to shampoo, take away the sulfates. And if you want the cleanest, healthiest hair and scalp, take away any ingredients that have nothing to do with cleansing.”